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Overseas Information Services

Volume 524: debated on Monday 1 March 1954

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asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will now make a statement on the future programme for the Overseas Information Services.

As the reply is rather long, I will, with permission, give it at the end of Questions.

At the end of Questions:

Her Majesty's Government have considered the Report and recommendations submitted to them by the Committee on the Overseas Information Services, for which they are much indebted to Lord Drogheda and the members of his Committee. These recommendations deal with the long-term future of the Overseas Information Services— that is, their scale, and the balance which should be struck between one information service and another in different areas of the world. The expansions recommended by the Committee would be spread over a period of three to five years, and at the end of this period the additional cost would rise to some £1,800,000 a year. In addition, the Committee advocated further considerable expenditure upon capital development in the field of broadcasting.

These are substantial sums, and Her Majesty's Government do not feel able in the present financial situation to accept commitments on this scale without further examination. This examination is continuing, and my right hon. Friend hopes to make the results of it known later in the year. Meanwhile, he will arrange for a summary of the Drogheda Report to be issued as a White Paper.

In the meantime, Her Majesty's Government have reached a decision regarding the level of activity of the information during the financial year 1954–55. This will involve provisions in the estimates for the following:
  • 1 Strengthening the information ser vices in South-East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe.
  • 2 Some reinforcement of information services in the Commonwealth, and
  • 3 The establishment of three regional information offices in the Colonial Empire.
  • Changes will be made in the organisation of British Council work in certain European countries, and the savings thus obtained will be used to reinforce other services of the Council. The Council will be withdrawn from Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon as soon as arrangements can be made. There will be no change in the present pattern of external broadcasting, until Her Majesty's Government have completed their examination of the long-term issues. Finally, the current levels of activity of the information services will, except in a few minor instances, not be reduced to cover rising costs. These will be met in part by deferring a certain amount of capital expenditure and in part by the provision of new money.

    The net additional cost of these arrangements will be approximately £330,000 in the financial year 1954–55.

    While thanking the Undersecretary of State for that reply, which it has taken many months to draw from him, may I ask whether he does not think that this shows that the criticism levelled at the cuts in Overseas Information Services by the Opposition some two years ago were correct, because of the recommendations of the Drogheda Committee that they should be increased? May I further ask whether the hon. Gentleman will give an assurance that the B.B.C. services will be maintained, despite any increase in costs and in the jamming of their services? In view of the recommendation of the Drogheda Committee, why has it been decided that the B.B.C. alone of the Overseas Information Services does not receive any increase? It was the B.B.C. that suffered most when cuts were last applied.

    I cannot agree that the B.B.C. has suffered most from the general cuts made in the information services over the last seven or eight years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, they have had by far and away the lion's share of the Overseas Information Services budget and the last cuts made by Her Majesty's Government did not affect the B.B.C. at all. As to the level of activities, that will be maintained. Anti-jamming activities will go on without reducing the existing level of activities.

    As to the time taken to produce an answer to this Question, the hon. Gentleman will realise that £1,800,000 of the taxpayers' money is a considerable sum for Her Majesty's Government to decide to devote over a period of three to five years. The Drogheda Committee spent a considerable amount of time in examination before reaching a conclusion, and I do not think there has been any undue delay on the part of the Government.

    Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Minister to keep in mind that although at first sight this may seem a very considerable cost, relatively, if it will help to maintain peace, it may prove to be small, and less than the cost of a big bomber?

    That is certainly one of the considerations to be borne in mind in this further examination.

    Is my hon. Friend aware that the six-man Parliamentary Delegation which recently visited Burma and Indonesia was unanimous in thinking that there was a great opportunity for an increase in this type of work in South-East Asia and that it is welcome to hear that there will be such an increase? Will special attention be given to the export of British books to this area, where they are particularly valuable and needed?

    Yes, Sir. That is one of the supply services of the British Council which we hope to be able to strengthen by re-deploying the savings from the withdrawing of certain British Council services from Western Europe.

    With regard to the withdrawal of the Council from Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon, why was this decision taken by the Government before they had consulted the volunteer workers—including some hon. Members opposite —who formed the Executive Committee of the British Council? Was not this gross discourtesy on the part of the Government?

    I do not think it was gross discourtesy on the part of the Government at all. This decision was taken, I understand, as a result of my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations going into the question thoroughly because of what he found when he went on his Commonwealth tour last year. He decided that the work could be done more economically by a smaller staff.

    As one of those who has some doubts about the merits of the British Council, may I ask why we are to have the Drogheda Report in summary? Is it not more desirable that we should see all of it?

    I do not think that is possible. There are certain security considerations to be taken into account, but I can promise that it will be a full summary.

    Without entering into the merits of the Matter, may I ask if the Governments of Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon were consulted about the proposal to withdraw the services of the British Council from their countries?